Going Digital: Three Things Every Manga Publisher Needs

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about what goes into publishing manga, mostly because I would love to begin publishing books on my own, but mostly because I feel like the market has begun to totally change. E-readers are becoming more prevalent for serious fans and even a number of the less serious fans have iPhones, Droids or other smart phones that make viewing manga on the go a lot easier. Of course, the manga industry, and the comics industry in general, has been a bit slow to fully embrace digital. Whether their reasons be because companies still favor print (and so do their readers) or because rights holders are still hesitant to give digital rights, I honestly don’t think the industry can turn away from digital comics any more. Sooner or later, almost everyone is going to own an e-reader just like suddenly almost everyone owned an mp3 player.

Of course, the future is unknowable to us mortals and we can’t predict what will change the industry next, but here’s a few things I think manga publishers need to adopt now to be prepared for the onslaught of fans who no longer want print copies.

1. Offer dirt cheap manga for just about every platform imaginable:

This one should be pretty obvious. The music industry survived it’s piracy wars by letting songs go for 99 cents a pop, the same thing should be possible for the comics industry in theory. Of course, 99 cents is a little low, but prices should be as low as feasibly possible. Why? Because the pirates don’t value manga now, just like pirates didn’t value music then. There will still be piracy, of course, but by taking a big gulp and doing whatever is possible to make prices low for readers, it might be possible to begin attracting some of the casual pirates back.

This, unfortunately, is made difficult by the e-reader wars going on. The best strategy is to just offer the manga on any platform that’s humanly (and financially) possible. Sites like ComiXology are obviously a great go-to site for multiple digital platforms and manga publishers like Viz, TOKYOPOP, DMP and Dark Horse are already there. Plus, you can read on the web in case you don’t have an e-reader, which solves the problem for that side of the market who hasn’t been able to buy the expensive gadgets yet.

2. Regular Online Serialization:

Oh man, do I think this is a great idea. A bunch of SigIkki series and Rin-ne became instant favorites when I discovered I could get chapters online for free. It was a ton of fun to get Neko Ramen strips in my mail box each day. But other than the Viz titles, I can’t think of any publisher who is doing regular online serialization with a large number of series. It’d be great to have more pubs jump on to give those people who want to “preview” their manga before they buy what they want. Solving the problem of people just being able to read a series for free all the time, Viz just pulls the chapters once a book goes out, leaving nothing but the first chapters of every volume for those “preview” pirate types.

There are a number of publishers who serialize online, but I find the problem with them is that they do so too infrequently to hold the attention of readers who are devouring manga at the pace of scanlation readers normally do.

3. An open mind and a better website:

It’s no big secret that most manga publisher websites suck. If they aren’t too busy and overwhelming, they’re hard to navigate and it’s difficult to find the information you want. Minimal web design is popular now for a reason- the faster users can find what they want, the faster they get gratification. I’m not saying that manga publishers can’t add flourishes here and there, but unnecessary content, tabs and whatnot should be taken down. We don’t need manga companies to be our social network stand-ins anymore, but every company should run a blog that publishes a bit more than just PR copy. I particularly like some of Viz’s blogs for Rin-ne and SigIkki and TOKYOPOP has some fun cultural content every week in its newsletter. (I used to write articles for it as an intern. It was great fun.) But there should be a blog and it should be the publisher’s hub for getting information out to the masses. And, most importantly, it should not  be written like a press release.

Technically having a open mind should be a fourth thing on this list, but it’s something that really applies to it’s predecessors on this short list. Without an open mind, publishers are going to want to give up and just stick to print. But that’s not going to fly anymore. Publishers need to realize that experimentation is going to be necessary. If a digital publishing venture isn’t making money, it might be best to drop it and turn to a new idea. Internet culture changes so very quickly and there’s always some new device, technology or service out there and surviving will definitely go hand in hand with the ability to be nimble and able to adopt new things.

Is there anything else you feel that publishers should think of when working on digital publishing? I admit, it’s late at night and I might have missed something. Share what you think manga publishers should be doing to accommodate online readers.

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12 Responses to Going Digital: Three Things Every Manga Publisher Needs

  1. Courtney says:

    I own a Droid, and I personally use it to read any digital-format comic I know I will enjoy. To top it off, there are a couple apps for the droid that allow you access to the vast collection of scanlated manga available and the web, but I haven’t used them.
    A friend of mine and I often talk about piracy on the web, and while we haven’t found a cure-all to the solution, we have thought about ways companies could improve their sales of physical copies: Packaging. In the case of music, originality goes a long way! 2NE1’s latest album release, for example, is huge. The material of the case reflects all sorts of pretty colors depending on the angle you hold it in the light, and it includes a photo booklet and an intricately designed interior. Rain’s last album was practically a puzzle box to access! Even good ol’ Gackt had an album or two that was art all on its own. Sure, it won’t deter a pirate who pirates for pirating sake, but it certainly is an incentive to buy. Why spend money on a CD that looks like all my other CDs, taking up yet more space in my room? Why spend money on a digital copy of a song when I can just download it? I typically borrow my roommate’s vast collection of Korean pop, but the packaging and gifts included with some albums are so delightful that I’ve started buying my own. If 2NE1’s album came in our boring old jewel cases, I don’t think I’d own it! Even movies, television shows, and K-dramas are more enticing to buy when the home in which they live isn’t boring–You’re Beautiful came with a little booklet with the lyrics from the show’s songs written in both Hangul and (properly translated) English, and cute photos!
    Now, stepping away from the physical copies when it comes to manga is a great idea to reach those of us who have grown up on the stuff but lack the space for a physical copy, especially if it isn’t a memorable book. (I cannot tell you how many of my BL books I’ll be selling for a buck at the next Yaoi-con, just to make more space on my shelves!) However, there are many of us who love having that physical copy. Digital stuff can be lost, for one thing, and if I’m spending money on it, I want to have proof that it was worth it. So… why not improve the packaging? I don’t know much about the publishing industry, but for the price a manga goes nowadays, they can afford a little more than a flimsy dust jacket and a generic format–same height, same jackets (if they even have that!), cheapo paper. DMP is the biggest culprit on this. I actually have stopped buying DMP works (unless it is a series I really want to own) because they all look the same: Boring. (Nevermind the fact that DMP is flooding the BL scene with crap just to have a monopoly on said product, but that is a different topic.)
    Honestly? My most prized series on my shelf, the one I will never give away or sell, is Earthian. Sure, I enjoy Yun Kouga’s work for the most part, but love was poured into the US release. The cover is a nice material, tasteful and unique. The pages have yet to yellow. When I bought them, they were about $9 each. They are the prettiest books on my manga shelves, I can recognize what they are from a distance, and I feel like a true collector when I see it.
    Many publishers nowadays really skirt by on the saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But I barely hang around the manga section anymore, due to the lack of care, originality, and overall quality control of the final product’s outward appearance. Oh, the art can be beautiful or ugly, it can be well written or poorly translated, it doesn’t matter–that final product vanishes the moment it sits next to another book from the same company. Disappointing.
    Going digital would eliminate the high cost, the realization that the book you picked up might not be worth a re-read, and offers you the chance to carry a library that rivals the one seen in Beauty and th Beast, yet fits right into your pocket. Also, releasing it in a digital magazine style would be great! Paying for a subscription at, say, $8 a month, and receiving the digital equivalent to those Japanese telephone-book-sized magazines, would open the door to many a series for casual readers and serious collectors alike. I would pay for something like that in both the shoujo and the BL genres, if I could stick something like that on my Droid or Touch!
    What I suggest is a combination of these things. Pubs can release their digital copies, can release e-zines, can do whatever they want to do digitally–but they should also put more work into the quality of the physical copies. Works by such artists as Sumomo Yumeka, filled with beauty and time and thought, deserve to have just as much love put into their packaging. I’m not asking for hardcover, but higher quality paper, nicer dust jackets, or even more durable bodies, would not only show respect to the series and the author–it would show respect to fans, as well, and I would definitely be encouraged to buy more!
    So, to summarize: Digital magazines > Digital Copies > Thoughtfully-packaged physical copies, possibly limited editions. In that order, yes. I think the market would improve a bit.

    • Alex says:

      Limited editions encourage collectors to collect. They don’t encourage pirates to stop pirating, which is essentially what a digital manga operation is trying to do. Also, it’s hard to make a limited edition paperback novel, which is essentially what manga is. The print cost to make a run of 10o or 500 limited edition volumes is probably cost prohibitive, unlike a pamphlet comic book, where print costs are generally lower.

      I like the idea of giving out a free digital copy of the manga along with the purchase of the book – the idea being that once you buy it, you can have it whereever you want it. The problem with digital copies right now is that a person could go through a book at the store (like they tend to do) and take the key or whatever you would need out of the book and get a free digital copy. You would probably have to put the books in a shrinkwrap, which people have complained about in the past.

      • I like the free digital copy with purchase idea! To bypass people stealing the free download codes, I think it would be wiser to give the booksellers the codes to distribute upon purchase. Each passcode could be scanned along with the manga and registered to the publisher so when the passcode is redeemed, the buyer gets a free digital copy. Sounds a little complicated, but if they can use that info to collect information for advertising, they can send it back to the publisher to redeem digital copies.

    • And the winner of the longest comment award in recent times goes to Courtney!
      There probably isn’t a cure-all for piracy. What I think we need instead is something that makes it easy and cheap enough for people to legitimately support the industry through a means that is similar to iTunes and Amazon mp3s.
      To be honest, I don’t think increase the quality of manga packaging is going to do much for anyone but the people who care about Tezuka manga and other art manga. The current audience has proven time and time again that while they whine about paper quality and want all the fancy doodads, they won’t actually buy it, making the effort and money wasted. For CDs, I honestly think it’s gotten to a point where the music industry can do packaging like that because either a) the artist is successful with a fanbase that will buy for the sake of collecting or b) they want to impress with a debut. At the moment, that’s something only the smaller manga publishers like Vertical, Fantagraphics and Top Shelf can do. They have a readership who still cares about how their bookshelves look and having the physical book. And while those companies tend to do fairly well for themselves, they don’t have the best selling manga. Viz, TOKYOPOP and Yen Press do, but their readership has clearly shown they’ll just as soon steal the manga. The manga publishers are pretty much too broke to improve their packaging at this point. So until then, it’s best to turn to digital where printing costs don’t factor in and where maybe we can see the same shift to digital the music industry got to see. Maybe one day we can have nicely packaged manga, but at this point, the readership is too low to pay that much money just for a nice dust jacket or a cover on fancy paper.
      Yen Press took it’s magazine Yen Plus from print to digital and I’m not sure how well it’s working for them, but it’s only $3 a month for a fairly substantial amount of manga. It’s mostly OEL at this point, but I believe there’s some sunjeong manhwa (the equivalent of shoujo in Korea.) There’s also Yotsuba&!, which I think you would enjoy, and K-ON!, which I’ve heard is cute. Check it out here.

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  3. Sheentaku says:

    Digital manga is going to be rather hard to take off. The problem with dealing with nerd and nerd hobbies is that nerds are often willing to go to great lengths to pirate something. I dont think people will pay for digital copys, I mean i know no one in my age bracket who is willing to pay for a MP3 even if its dirt cheap. But they all have Spoftfy accounts and ad based services.
    I think they key is to copy the crunchyroll model, Ad based services + subscription. Offering physical copies for well performing titles.

    People do not want to pay for a digital copy, as their is no value as you can not hold it. But they will pay for a digital service. As it seems there is greater value for your buck.
    This is why Apple wants to get into the streaming service. Digital is the new TV/Radio.

    • Hmmm, while that’s certainly true right now when not too many young people have iPads or other e-readers, I think once the price of e-readers goes down, we might see a surge of people buying comics that’s priced low enough so that they begin to see it as worth their money. If you remember, there was the same trouble with mp3s and now a lot of people do use iTunes or Amazon to get them. What is your age bracket, if you don’t mind me asking?
      Ad-based services and subscriptions are another way, but something tells me that manga publishers (especially on the Japanese side of things) aren’t going to let all their content go like that. After all, other book publishers aren’t letting a substantial amount of their catalog go for free. Plus, does Crunchyroll allow you view content on your iPhone? (I’m asking because I can’t get on the site to investigate right now.) It’s great to have content available on a computer, but I totally want to view it on my smart phone too.

      I think Alex’s idea is the best so far. (See one of the above comments) I’d love to get digital copies with my print copies too. And then if I just want a digital copy, I could buy it pretty cheaply from the publisher or a place like ComiXology.

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  5. JRB says:

    I think that two big things that digital manga needs to be a success are a consistent format and centralized distribution. We haven’t yet discovered the format that will be the manga equivalent of the mp3; portable, universal, and compatible with every platform and hardware. Currently, the content needs to be reformatted and repackaged for every different app or distribution strategy; most publishers don’t have the time and staff to cover every format and are trying only one or two, which means that readers need to use many services/devices to access everything, and that some or all of the material out there will be in a format that gets left in the dust (anyone remember ComicsOne’s Adobe e-book manga? It’s still available…).

    And while I agree that convenient, well-designed (and current!) websites are definitely something that more publishers should pay attention to, I don’t think that having each individual publisher offer their series on their own sites is going to work out long-term; most readers don’t care who publishes what, they just want to read their favorites with a minimum of fuss, and currently they’d rather follow a series in pirated copies on their favorite aggregator site than visit multiple publishers’ sites for legal copies of the same titles. One of the factors that made iTunes the 800lb gorilla of digital music is the ability to find anything and everything, conveniently in one place. Digital manga (and digital comics, generally) needs a similar centralized distribution system; ComiXology is making a bid to be that, but I’m not convinced.

    • Consistent format would certainly be helpful, but considering how the e-reader wars are going, no one’s going to be deciding on a certain format for a few years. It’s annoying, I know, but it’s an issue that just hasn’t been solved yet.
      Centralized distribution is sort of coming in the form of ComiXology, like you said, but it does only cover web, iPhone and iPad so far, leaving anyone in the dust with a Kindle or another kind of e-reader. I think if they kept expanding, that would be great. Then again, there’s that manga platform Crunchyroll is supposedly developing for manga. That could be big, but since it’s not on the market yet, it’s really hard to predict what’ll happen with it.
      Frankly, I wanted the websites to match with the online serialization. Yen Press, Viz, Netcomics and many other companies don’t serialize their product outside their site, therefore it would be important to have an easy to navigate site.
      To be honest, these suggestions are really just first steps until there are clear file formats and legal manga aggregation sites formed. Since I can’t foresee the future, I can’t just say: every publisher should get their manga on this platform, in this format, on this site. There just isn’t that place yet, but this is what manga publishers can do to build a strong early digital initiative that can start attracting more readers. Like I said, all the publishers are going to have to be nimble enough to change direction if they need to. They can’t put all their money into one or two initiatives without expecting things to never change again, but they need to go somewhere to start.

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